School Testing Measures Poverty
The crisp fall air braces me as I get the morning paper. The reds and yellows stand against the sky as I scurry back for a mug of coffee and see how my football, baseball and soccer teams did over the weekend. A little whoop of glee escapes me for a surprising victory and a dark grunt for sour losses.
By the time I head to work, my mind has moved on. This is just a bunch of games, as quickly forgotten as a waiting room magazine. Except for the most fanatical Red Sox fans, the scores have nothing to do with important things like happiness, life-satisfaction, family, children, health, well-being and community.
Yet, as part of the federal education law (NCLB), a bewildering bunch of box-scores are being printed listing whether schools are seen as winners or losers. These league standings score whether the school made "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) in improving their state standardized test scores. In these standings, the effects are not so benign. If they don't make AYP, school and community reputations, property values, teachers' pride, children's motivation, and parents' school support are all affected.
If the tests were a true measure of the quality of schools, much could be said in favor of this approach. However, scholars from the conservative-oriented Hoover Institution say these year-to-year comparisons are 70 percent error. They simply don't measure school quality very well. Looking at Vermont, 43 schools have been identified as not making "adequate yearly progress." (A new round of league scores is due out in November).
What do we know about these Vermont school communities?
The poverty rate in communities with schools identified as not making adequate yearly progress is 50 percent higher than the state average.
The child poverty rate (below 18 years old) is double the state average.
The child poverty rate (below 5 years of age) is more than double the state average.
The percent of households on public assistance is 67 percent higher.
The percent with less than a ninth grade education is 35 percent higher.
The percent without a high school diploma is 40 percent higher.
Per-capita income is 20 percent lower.
Perhaps our state tests measure poverty rather than the quality of our schools. What we simply don't know from our test scores is whether the schools are doing a great job or a bad job of teaching children.
Perhaps the school in the wealthy, professional and highly educated community actually did a poorer job of teaching children than the school working in the most difficult circumstances with our most needy, deprived and troubled children. The accountability system doesn't measure whether schools are efficient, have high-quality teaching, are pleasant places to be or whether the teachers care about children.
Paradoxically, there is a strong body of research that shows schools in poor communities provide more value to children than schools in more affluent communities.
The children start further back and the schools bring the children further along. Yet it is the poor schools that don't make the AYP thresholds and are labeled as failing.
Posting the league standings strikes strange discords for a law that says every child must learn. We have to develop the talents of all children no matter what they bring to the field in terms of ability, family background, or lack of nurturing. Children from deprived homes most need pre-school, after-school, health and summer programs. To overcome poverty, we must reach further than a packaged teaching program. "Who's ahead" and "who's behind" is not a model best suited for a system where all children must be winners.
Despite talk about "historic" financial commitments to these children, the federal government has scheduled NCLB funds to be cut next year. Even worse, the NCLB budget now before Congress completely eliminates school improvement funds.
If we want to make sure no child is left behind, it will not be done by printing league standings in the newspaper. The recent Gallup poll on education tells us that Americans strongly embrace equality for all and, further, that we must provide greater opportunities for our most needy.
The citizenry also says that school quality is not measured strictly by test scores.
Thus, we must rebuild our accountability systems to match our democracy and support those values about equality and children's growth we hold most dear.
William J. Mathis is superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union and a senior fellow of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
William J. Mathis
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES